Futurist Ray Kurzweil on smartphones, AI, and the human brain

The inventor and author speaks onstage at the Techonomy conference in Tucson about his new book on human thought and the themes that stem from it.

Andrew Nusca Special to CNET News
Andrew Nusca is the editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor at ZDNet. He has written for New York, Men's Vogue, Popular Mechanics, and Money. He is based in New York.
Andrew Nusca
3 min read
Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil Asa Mathat
MARANA, Ariz.--Inventor, author, and futurist Ray Kurzweil took to the stage here at the Techonomy conference in Tucson to offer his thoughts on a future where humanity is enhanced by technology.

Kurzweil spoke to Techonomy founder David Kirkpatrick about his new book on human thought, "How to Create a Mind," and the various themes that stem from it. Their talk was varied and at times scattered -- with a topic this big, you can imagine the temptation of tangents -- but Kurzweil had a few choice things to say along the way.

The highlights:

 "I'm very optimistic [about the next five years] because there's a lot of evidence that not only hardware is progressing exponentially but software [too]," Kurzweil said.

 IBM's Watson and its performance on the television game show "Jeopardy!" is "viscerally impressive" in that people don't understand how truly remarkable an advancement it is. (Why? Because it's a computer coming to conclusions on its own, rather than searching a database and reiterating data stored within.

 We are so integrated with connected technology today that "during that one-day SOPA strike, I felt like part of my brain had gone on strike." (SOPA legislation threatened the autonomy of content providers on the Internet.)

 Holding up a Google Android-based smartphone, Kurzweil said that "these will be the size of blood cells by 2030."

 IBM's Watson and Google's autonomous car will become deeply integrated with how we live. "That kind of system will become a reliable tool that people will become dependent on," he said.

 The very human capabilities of being funny or sexy? "These are not sideshows to human intelligence," Kurzweil said. "That's the cutting edge of human intelligence."

 Artificially intelligent agents can be considered human "once they write a novel," Kurzweil said. "They will be convincing in their ability to do human-like things."

 There's no reason to fear the future. "We are a human-machine civilization [today]. Computers are doing things all the time that we can't possibly do." And things are progressing quickly. "A kid in Africa has more technology at his disposal than the president of the United States did 15 years ago."

 Technology will push us to be more human, not less. "We're going to use those tools to make ourselves more expressive and more intelligent."

 And it won't be conceptually different from the analog era, either. "We do have ways to make ourselves smarter through collaboration," Kurzweil said. "That was the value of language."

 "I've been thinking about thinking for 50 years," Kurzweil said, reflecting.

 Discussing his book, he said that only recently, "we can see our brain create our thoughts. We can see our thoughts create our brain." His book's publication was delayed four times because of new research advancing this idea.

 Understanding the brain better is important for three reasons: first, to fix it better; second, to provide models for humans to create more intelligent machines; and third, to further the science of understanding ourselves.

Finally, Kurzweil was asked by a member of the audience: "Are you an optimist?

He chuckled, then replied: "I've been accused of being an optimist." Then he leaned back in his chair.

This story originally appeared on SmartPlanet.